On a steamy day last June, in the hangarlike main hall of the Baltimore Convention Center, some 5,000 members of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. spent five hours talking about sex.
Specifically, they gnashed their teeth over a controversial report that would have liberalized the Protestant denomination's stance on human sexuality.
When the gnashing was done, a few hundred men and women, most of them gays and lesbians, walked to the front of the hushed hall in an officially approved demonstration. They carried a large wooden cross and banners. They placed the cross at the foot of the dais where church leaders sat, hammered nails into the cross, picked it up again and marched slowly from the room.
As they walked out, they chanted, "We are gay and angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives."
What had angered them was the Presbyterian leaders' expected and overwhelming rejection of the sexuality report. The denomination had, in effect, maintained its view that sex is to be practiced only by married heterosexuals. And, most significantly the eyes of many delegates and observers, the church had upheld its 13-year-old prohibition against homosexual ministers, elders and deacons.
Jim Larson, a 40-year-old Presbyterian living in Columbia, attended last summer's convention. As a man who has recently begun coming to grips with his own homosexuality, he took more than a casual interest in the controversy over the report, though he did not participate in the symbolic crucifixion on the Convention Center floor.
All that religious gays and lesbians want is "a sense of at-homeness, to be able to use our gifts within the church," says Mr. Larson, the chairman of the Baltimore chapter of Presbyterians for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, a group not officially tied to the denomination.
"A lot of gays and lesbians become discouraged and leave their churches because it's hard to be faithful in a place that questions your validity as a person," Mr. Larson says. "The church sends this double message: 'We like you here, but we can't accept you as you are.' "
Many gays and lesbians give an A for effort to the Presbyterians, for even considering the ordination of open and active homosexuals, and to other denominations that recently have studied sexuality, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
But gays and lesbians also anguish over the paradox of watching churches and synagogues preach love and community while they slam their doors on religious homosexuals.
Clearly the denominations are torn over the issue, too. They want to acknowledge changing social mores and the people who embody them, including sexually active heterosexual singles and teens, as well as homosexuals. At the same time, they don't want to alienate the bedrock majority of clergy and laypeople who, in poll after poll, advocate traditional morality.
So, when churches consider giving their blessing to openly gay people, they almost always end up voting to keep the status quo. (Only the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism sanction openly homosexual clergy.)
These nay votes preserve the old taboos against openly gay and lesbian clergy. By extension, homosexual laypeople get the message that they also are not welcome. They say they're used to the feeling.
Rebecca Richards, who surrendered her credentials as a United Methodist minister when she "came out" as a lesbian in 1990, says, "I know so many gay and lesbian people who won't go near a church because of the religious institutions' policies against them. People won't go to a place for social, spiritual and psychological support if that place tells them they're bad."
Yet, many gays and lesbians keep the faith, asserting that the beauties of religion are as important to them as to anyone else.
Ms. Richards, who is 43 and a local activist for racial justice, says, "The churches have to look at what their policies are costing in human terms. They say, 'If we change our policy against homosexuality, we'll lose members.' In my statement when I gave up my credentials, I told the church officials, 'You already are losing members. And you're losing clergy, most of them good, talented people with a lot to offer.' "
Chuck, a 30-year-old gay man who is co-president of Dignity Baltimore, a group for gay and lesbian Roman Catholics, points out that gay-bashing often is based on the Scriptures. Routine citations include the story of Sodom, supposedly destroyed because of sins including homosexuality, and St. Paul's injunctions presumably against homosexual practices.
But, "the logic of those arguments can't be supported," says Chuck, who asks that his last name not be used because he hasn't yet informed his family that he is gay. ("My father was just in the hospital. I don't want to put him right back in again," he explains.)